Perspective: iPad and the keyboard -- getting inside Apple's head

Noted analyst ponders whether Apple could out-Surface Microsoft, concludes it will do so only if it thinks the category is ripe

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Microsoft has not broken any records with the Surface, but it may be on to something. As tablets become more powerful, they become more able to serve as a user's single larger-format computer rather than as an adjunct, which is what they are today. Paired with a keyboard, a tablet doubles as an ultra-light notebook; married to a stationary keyboard and one or more monitors, it serves as the basis for a desktop system. On its own it's, well, a tablet.

"Consumers are relatively comfortable with a laptop and a tablet," said Bajarin. "The tablet augments the laptop, but they shift [usage] so that they spend about 80% of their time on the tablet. That's the consumer scenario, but business is different, with about 80% of the time spent on the laptop, because that's what they're paid to do."

But he believed people could be convinced otherwise. "Even though that's how they're used now, don't discount that [consumers] will think differently [in the future]." Bajarin said.

Apple executives, however, have gone on record disparaging the concept. A year ago, around the Surface's launch, CEO Tim Cook called it "a fairly compromised and confusing product," and in the next breath, compared it to "a car that flies and floats."

But pay no nevermind. "Apple wants to create products that consumers want," Bajarin said. "Jobs created products that he would want. That kind of configuration [of tablet and keyboard] could become of interest because they would like one," he continued, now referring to Apple's current top tier. "That would be the driver."

There's no direct evidence Cook and Co. are lusting after a Surface, or even an iPad with Surface-esque qualities. But some recent moves have been seen as clues by outsiders. That includes the decision in September to make Apple's iWork productivity suite free on iOS for new device buyers and the company's second attempt at a cloud-based iWork, called iWork for iCloud.

But if Apple followed Microsoft, and "Surface-ized" the iPad, wouldn't it be dinged as a copy cat, trailing its rival? Perhaps, but Apple wouldn't care. "I don't think that would hold them back," Bajarin said. "The real issue for Apple is, 'Can we reinvent the product around the way we would like to use it?'"

Apple has a knack for that. Its iPod wasn't the first MP3 player: Audible.com's MobilePlayer beat Apple to the punch by four years. Nor was the iPhone the first smartphone or the iPad the first tablet. Microsoft's then-CEO Bill Gates, for example, held his company's Tablet PC aloft in 2001, and even then, was far from first.

Apple is patient, said Bajarin, bides its time, and moves only when it believes the time is right and ripe.

It's hard to argue that now is that time. Customers haven't beaten a path to the Surface Pro or OEM alternatives. And Bajarin thought it unlikely that hybrids would capture a majority share. "Ultimately, we don't think it will have more than 20% of the market," said Bajarin of 2-in-1 devices. But 20% of the PC market or the tablet market -- or both -- would be huge. On Monday, Gartner's latest forecast put PC shipments next year at 321 million, tablets at 263 million.

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